Without road, new school stranded

The school district may have to install 725 feet of temporary pavement.

Published May 20, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - It takes U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps one minute and 43 seconds to go 725 feet, which is about four lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Reaching a decision to build that same distance of road for a high school in central Pasco proves to be a much trickier proposition.

Especially when three sets of developers, the school district and county officials are involved.

Lennar Homes, Newland Communities and Amprop Development were supposed to build the first half-mile of Sunlake Boulevard, a north-south road about midway between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41 on State Road 54.

That road would have been a lifeline for Rushe Middle School and Sunlake High School, when the high school opens this August. Originally, Sunlake was supposed to open in 2008, but a crush of new students forced the district to move up the date.

But now Lennar is declining to build the road, leaving the district with the prospect of building 725 feet of temporary pavement just to reach the high school, say school officials and two sets of developers.

"In front of county staff, in at least two meetings, Lennar made the absolute assurance that the road would be constructed prior to the opening of the school, " said John Petrashek, the district's construction director.

Lennar's vice president of land development, Ken Wagner, did not reply to several messages from the Pasco Times.

Late last year, Lennar's Tampa offices apparently had a change of leadership, Petrashek said.

For months, the district could not get any calls to Lennar returned.

By the time they heard from Lennar again, the deal was dead.

* * *

Sunlake Boulevard was the county's vision of a big new thoroughfare, starting at SR 54 with six lanes before narrowing to four as it wends northward toward Newland's Bexley Ranch.

Its construction was spelled out in at least three interlocking developer agreements.

Lennar, Newland and Amprop would build the first leg, linking SR 54 to Mentmore Boulevard, the road that currently serves as Concord Station's main access.

They all have an interest in getting it done - just not so soon.

Newland needs it to eventually link SR 54 to Bexley Ranch. The 7, 000-acre development's grand opening is scheduled for the first quarter of 2009.

Amprop needs it for the 155-acre Sunlake shopping center it's proposing on SR 54. The mall, with CVS and Publix as tenants, is expected to open in summer 2008.

Lennar's Concord Station could use another access point, too.

But, marooned on the southwestern corner of Mentmore and Sunlake Boulevard, the district schools arguably have the most urgent need.

"We were working on a joint agreement to build it, " said Eric Schoessler, Amprop's managing partner. "Lennar drafted that agreement. Then they pulled out. They said they didn't have any obligation per their development agreement to build it that soon."

That's technically true, said County Attorney Robert Sumner.

Pasco typically ties developers' roadbuilding obligations to the pace of the market. Lennar's development agreement requires it to deliver that road only when their 900th home is occupied.

But Ray Gadd, who is in charge of buying new land for the school district, said Concord Station has around 600 homes. The residential market slowdown makes the likelihood of realizing Lennar's obligation even more distant.

Still, Newland and Amprop officials say they are willing to step up.

Newland's Rick Harcrow said his company got in touch with Lennar about a year ago. Newland offered to take on Lennar's burden for roadbuilding if Lennar would split the cost 50-50.

But Lennar now wants Newland to pay for all of it, Harcrow said.

Not just that, Lennar wants Newland to create or restore the ponds, wetlands, and buffering that would have been Lennar's responsibility, Harcrow and Schoessler said. These features are essential parts of new roads, since pavement affects drainage.

"These ponds are scattered throughout Concord Station, " Harcrow said. "Many of these ponds are intermingled with Lennar's own stormwater needs. So we're not only going to be doing the road but an inordinate amount of earthwork. It's millions in extra costs for us."

How much? Harcrow couldn't say for certain, but estimated it at about $11-million, more than double what it committed to the county for its own obligations.

"Lennar is even insisting on keeping the fill, " Schoessler said. Fill is a lucrative byproduct of excavation.

There's another problem: Lennar has not yet given the county a northern piece of property that would complete Sunlake Boulevard as an access to Bexley Ranch. Without that northern piece, Sunlake Boulevard would be useless to Bexley Ranch residents.

* * *

In negotiations last year, Lennar official Kartik Goyani apparently committed to building Sunlake Boulevard to relieve the school.

Late last year, Goyani was out.

"Wagner said Kartik did not have the authority to make those commitments, " Petrashek said. Petrashek did not suggest that Wagner had a hand in removing Goyani.

On Friday, a receptionist at Lennar said Goyani left the company about six months ago.

Now, the school district may have a legal fight.

The district bought its Sunlake property from the Byrd family in June 2003, and hammered out a contract for school access. But Sumner said he understands that the contractual terms were not transferred to Lennar when the Byrds sold its remaining tracts to Lennar.

"The contract wasn't recorded and the conditions are not in Lennar's development order, " Sumner said.

Gadd and Petrashek said that is Lennar's version of events. They said the school district's attorneys are now combing through records to verify this.

Sumner, who was brought in last week to try to broker a solution, said he thinks Lennar should pay for its share of the roadbuilding cost.

* * *

What now?

Newland and Amprop say they would build the road without Lennar, but there's the matter of drainage work.

"Barring any resolution from Lennar, the only other alternative - and ironically the most expeditious - is to find a way to disconnect from the development work that Lennar wants us to do on their property, " Harcrow said.

Sumner said he's unwilling to absolve Newland from Lennar's share of the drainage work.

So Newland now would try to find a way to compensate for drainage works on land that is not owned by Lennar, Harcrow said. The district is willing to help, Gadd said.

The short-term solution is for the district to pay about $275, 000 for the 725 feet of temporary pavement to reach Sunlake High School from Mentmore Boulevard.

Such a road can be used for a year or slightly longer, Petrashek said.

Lennar may have taken a shortsighted approach, Schoessler said.

"They own land up there, " he said. "They have an obligation to their shareholders to complete this. Lennar buys lots from people like Newland. And this is going to be remembered."

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.